In the spring of 1987 President Reagan and I were driven into a large hangar at the Ottawa Airport, to await the arrival of Mrs. Reagan and my wife, Mila, prior to departure ceremonies for their return to Washington. We were alone except for the security details.
President Reagan’s visit had been important, demanding and successful. Our discussions reflected the international agenda of the times: The nuclear threat posed by the Soviet Union and the missile deployment by NATO; pressures in the Warsaw pact, challenges resulting from the Berlin Wall and the ongoing separation of Germany; and bilateral and hemispheric free trade.
President Reagan had spoken to Parliament, handled complex files with skill and good humor – strongly impressing his Canadian hosts – and here we were, waiting for our wives.
When their car drove in a moment later, out stepped Nancy and Mila – looking like a million bucks. As they headed towards us, President Reagan beamed, threw his arm around my shoulder and said with a grin: “You know, Brian, for two Irishmen we sure married up.”
In that visit – in that moment – one saw the quintessential Ronald Reagan – the leader we respected, the neighbor we admired and the friend we loved – a president of the United States of America whose truly remarkable life we celebrate in this magnificent cathedral today.
Presidents and prime ministers everywhere sometimes wonder how history will deal with them.
Some can even evince a touch of the insecurity of Thomas d'Arcy McGee, an Irish immigrant to Canada, who became a Father of our Confederation. In one of his poems, McGee, thinking of his birthplace, wrote poignantly:
“Am I remembered in Erin
I charge you, speak me true
Has my name a sound, a meaning
In the scenes my boyhood knew.”
Ronald Reagan will not have to worry about Erin because they remember him well and affectionately there. Indeed they do: from Erin to Estonia, from Maryland to Madagascar from Montreal to Monterey. Ronald Reagan does not enter history tentatively – he does so with certainty and panache. At home and on the world stage, his were not the pallid etchings of a timorous politician. They were the bold strokes of a confident and accomplished leader.
Some in the West during the early 1980s believed communism and democracy were equally valid and viable. This was the school of “moral equivalence.” In contrast Ronald Reagan saw Soviet communism as a menace to be confronted in the genuine belief that its squalid underpinning would fall swiftly to the gathering winds of freedom. Provided, as he said, that NATO and the industrialized democracies stood firm and united. They did. And we know now who was right.
Ronald Reagan was a president who inspired his nation and transformed the world. He possessed a rare and prized gift called leadership – that ineffable and sometimes magical quality that sets some men and women apart so that millions will follow them as they conjure up grand visions and invite their countrymen to dream big and exciting dreams.
I always thought that President Reagan’s understanding of the nobility of the presidency coincided with the American dream.
One day President Mitterrand in referring to President Reagan said: “Il a vraiment la notion de l'Etat.” Rough translation: “He really has a sense of the State about him.” The translation does not fully capture the profundity of the observation: what President Mitterrand meant was that there is a vast difference between the job of president and the role of president.
Ronald Reagan fulfilled both with elegance and ease, embodying himself that unusual alchemy of history, tradition, achievement, inspiration, conduct and national pride that define the special role the president of the United States must assume at home and around the world. “La notion de l'Etat” – no one understood it better than Ronald Reagan and no one more eloquently summoned his nation to high purpose or brought forth the majesty of the presidency and made it glow, better than the man who saw his country as a “shining city on a hill”
May our common future and that of our great nations be guided by wise men and women who will remember always the golden achievements of the Reagan era and the success that can be theirs if the values of freedom and democracy are preserved, unsullied and undiminished, until the unfolding decades remember little else.
I have been truly blessed to have had a friend like Ronald Reagan. I am grateful that our paths crossed and that our lives touched. I shall always remember him with deepest admiration and affection and I shall always feel honored by the journey we traveled together in search of better and more peaceful tomorrows for all God’s children, everywhere.
And so, in the presence of his beloved and indispensable Nancy, his children, family, friends and the American people he so deeply revered, I say “au revoir’ today to a gifted leader, historic president and gracious human being. And I do so with a line from Yeats, who wrote:
"Think where man’s glory most begins and ends and say – my glory was that I had such friends.”